Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Author Helpdesk. Part 1. The Plot

Author Helpdesk

We all need a bit of assistance now and again. Customer Service platforms thrive on our various dilemmas and questions. But where do authors go for short, snappy tips? 

Author Helpdesk is my small attempt to address this conundrum and talk about the things that crop up again and again when I'm editing fiction. So, let's start at the beginning ... 

What's the Story?

As we all know, story is crucial to any novel, and the fundamental story — that is, the plot — is what forms the unifying thread that essentially holds any book together, unites characters and subplots, and keeps the reader where the author wants them ... engrossed in their book. So, getting it right is vital to the success of your novel.

What's the Problem?

In my experience, many writers, particularly new ones, struggle with the following:

  • Overcomplicating the story
  • Concentrating on issues, or themes, at the expense of story — literally losing the plot!
  • Writing too much
  • Drafting a series before they've completed the first instalment

Overload Questions

Admittedly, seeing the bigger picture is easier when you're not immersed in the project, but if you suspect that your book might be suffering from any or several of the above problems, then try asking yourself:

  • Are you perhaps trying to do too much within the confines of one book? A lengthy tome might indicate this is the case.
  • Has the basic story disappeared beneath a plethora of weighty issues? Does your book deal very visibly with topics such as bullying, sexism, social injustice, and so on, rather than what your characters are up to?
  • Does your novel vastly exceed 100k words? If it's not fantasy, then consider that most commercial fiction is shorter than, or around, this extent.
  • How many stories are you actually trying to write? Do you perhaps have enough material for more than one novel?

Then what?

Narrow this down further. Can you answer these questions about your book?
  • What's your book about? 
  • What happens in it? Is there a clear narrative objective?
  • Who does the story happen to? Is there a clearly defined main protagonist?
  • Is your story actually on the page, or is it still in your head?
  • Most importantly, why should someone keep reading it?
Clearly, there are many other questions one could ask about a novel, but these are just a few starting points when thinking about your plot and whether you have conveyed it satisfactorily.

Stating the obvious?

When we read works by other authors, we subconsciously think about what works and/or what doesn't within those stories. So, we know all this stuff, right? 

And yet, an inadvertent obfuscation of plot is something that I come across regularly when editing fiction of all types, and across different genres aimed at miscellaneous target audiences, as authors allow their creative enthusiasm to lead them astray. 

So, when trying to reply to any of the above questions, a complicated and lengthy response should probably alert you to a potential problem with your basic plot.

What can you do?

Stand back. Take a breath. Be critical, albeit constructively and dispassionately. 

Consider if there are there things that are perhaps getting in the way of your storytelling, or rendering it less effective, such as tangential subplots or peripheral characters. Have you forced a story into a theme, rather than allowing a theme to emerge organically from your plot?

Remember ...

Editors and publishers will forgive the odd missing comma or incorrect tense, but they won't forgive weaknesses in the chain of events that happen in the book, or in the underlying elements that drive the narrative action. So, make sure that you focus on your story in the first instance. 

And failing that, consider the words of Neil Gaiman: 'Write down everything that happens in the story, and then in your second draft make it look like you knew what you were doing all along.'